CHINESE GOVERNMENT CONTROL OF MICROBLOGGING SITES

CHINESE GOVERNMENT AND MICROBLOGGING

The government could easily shut down microblogs. Officials disconnected the entire Internet in Xinjiang for 10 months after the ethnic riots there in 2009. But their growing popularity makes that highly unlikely. David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “Analysts warn that the growth of Chinese microblogs could be curtailed if the government decided they have become too powerful a force in public opinion. But for the time being, microblog services are complying with censors and winning over new users. Some experts say the government may try to turn microblogs to its benefit, monitoring comments and traffic to take the pulse of the nation, and perhaps even anticipate and respond to signs of social discontent. [Source: David Barboza New York Times, May 15, 2011]

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: The sites allow people to vent anger, and officials can track posts to see the direction of public opinion. More and more officials are also being encouraged to use microblogs for propaganda and to mold discussions. Talk within the party about controlling the Internet accelerated after a policy meeting of the party’s Central Committee in October that focused on culture and ideology. Song Jianwu, dean of the school of journalism and communication at China University of Political Science and Law, told the New York Times that Chinese leaders accepted the need for such outlets for expression. But in the case of weibos, he added, “they are also concerned that this safety valve could turn into an explosive device.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, January 18, 2012]

“It’s a real-time polling system to find out what’s going on in China,” said Bill Bishop, an independent Internet analyst in Beijing. “And it’s also a steam valve, since China’s a pressure cooker.” He says that if people get upset, “they can just say things on Weibo.” Besides, analysts say, using Weibo — the Chinese word for microblog — is not about activism; it’s about free expression, sharing information and connecting with people in the know.

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “The government...is trying to stay ahead of the trend. Local Communist Party bosses, propaganda department officials, municipal police departments and the provincial party chief in Xinjiang have recently launched microblogs. Chen Tong, executive vice president and editor in chief of Sina.com, China’s largest information Web site running the country’s most widely used weibo, said he persuaded 100 members of China’s parliament to open microblogging accounts during their annual March meeting in Beijing. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, March 27, 2011]

Chen told the Washington Post one of the positive signs was that local officials — from police to local mayors and even China's President Hu Jintao — now have their own microblogs. "It may just be for show, but I think it's a good sign," he said. "It shows that they are at least prepared to listen and are responding to the phenomenon of microblogging." Still, the number of government officials with weibo accounts remains low. Singers, entertainers and athletes are the most popular microbloggers, attracting as many as 10 million fan-followers each.

Officials in China carefully monitored the rebellions this year in the Middle East to see how they were organized and what role social networking sites played. In December 2011, Beijing officials said microblogs should “actively spread the core values of the socialist system, disseminate socialist advanced culture and build a socialist harmonious society.”

Chinese Government Control of Microblogging Sites

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “Beijing has moved to stem a tide of online criticism by tightening its grip on China's hugely popular microblogs, but experts say it will struggle to control the country's online masses.China constantly strives to exert its control over the Internet, blocking content it deems politically sensitive as part of a vast censorship system. But the huge and rising popularity of weibos - microblogs similar to Twitter that have taken China by storm since they first launched two years ago - has posed a major challenge to the censors. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, March 27, 2011]

There is some control. Posts involving the jailed dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo or the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement may be deleted or blocked from re-posting. Beijing's most senior Communist Party official, Liu Qi, visited the offices of Sina and Youku, a Chinese site similar to YouTube, to urge them to stop the spread of "false and harmful information". [Source: AFP, September 8, 2011]

David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong said attempts to censor the weibos were having an impact. References to the mass protest in Dalian, for example, have been removed. "Censorship of overt references and images of the protests themselves is plainly dampening the social media impact," he said. But he said Beijing would not be able to "put the genie back in the bottle", after web users' appetite for independently sourced information had been whetted.

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: Besides the in-house monitors who already scan posts for forbidden topics, operators in recent months have bolstered “rumor refutal” departments, staffed by editors, to investigate and knock down information deemed false. Top officials, including Liu Qi, the party secretary of Beijing, have held publicized visits to microblog companies, sometimes accompanied by popular microbloggers, in which he urged people to uphold social order and the proper ideology — and implying that their own status in official eyes would depend on their cooperation. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, January 18, 2012]

Beijing Tightens Controls over Microblogs

In December 2011, the Beijing city government said it would tighten control over popular microblogs that have vexed authorities with their rapid dissemination of news, giving users three months to register with their real names or face legal consequences.China has repeatedly criticized microblogs for spreading what it calls unfounded rumors and vulgarities and has issued a series of warnings that online content must be acceptable to the ruling Communist Party. [Source: Reuters, December 19, 2011]

Censors have a hard time monitoring the tens of millions of messages sent everyday and users have become expert at using clever, nuanced language to discuss sensitive topics such as human rights and the foibles of the top leadership. Now, in rules unveiled by the Chinese capital’s government and carried by state media, individual and company users must register with their real identification information. Users have three months to register with “responsible departments for Internet content” or will face legal consequences, state media cited the rules as saying. However, people will be able to choose their own user names, state-run Xinhua news agency cited an unidentified government spokesman with the Beijing Internet Information Office as saying.

Hong Kong media said the cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou were likely to follow suit. “Not only will this not affect the development of microblogs, it will help such sites build their brands and improve their service,” the government spokesman told Xinhua.

Wang Junxiu, an Internet commentator and investor in Beijing, said the new policy would be difficult to implement -- the rules give no details on how they will be enforced -- but nonetheless would have a chilling effect. “I don’t know how they’re going to implement this because there are already hundreds of millions of users on microblogs,” said Mr. Wang, who studies microblog developments. “How do you go about checking them one by one? It will be very hard to enforce, but it still means that the intensity of controls will grow.”

Peng Shaobin, general manager of Sina’s microblog service department, told Xinhua that the company had been trying hard to “stop the spread of false information” on microblogs. “We support the regulations,” Mr. Peng said.China already blocks foreign social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, fearing the uncensored sharing of images and information could cause instability and harm national security.

Chinese microbloggers were quick to share their dismay at the new rules. “This is a covert way of monitoring what people say and to control public opinion!” complained a user with the screen name of “huitailang.” “But think about it another way -- if the subjects of heaven are full of complaints, that’s bad for social harmony and for our emperors.”

Still, investors may be slightly more relaxed, as they have been expecting tighter regulation for some time now, said Dick Wei, a Hong Kong-based analyst with JPMorgan. The impact would depend on how the new regulations were executed, he added. “If you look at the real-name registration for the online games industry back a couple of years ago, the execution of the real-name registration on the online games industry did not impact [sic] the online game usage,” Mr. Wei said.

Sina and other Chinese microblog operators already deploy technicians and software to monitor content, and block and remove comments deemed unacceptable. This applies especially to content on protests, official scandals and Party leaders.The ruling Communist Party has vowed to intensify control over online social media and instant messaging tools. But analysts say it is unlikely to shut down what has become an important valve for monitoring and easing social pressures. The government has also urged ministries, officials and the police to set up their own microblogging accounts to give the public “correct” facts and release authorized information in order to dispel misunderstandings.

New Rules on Using Real Names on Microblogs and Social Networking Sites

In December 2011, the New York Times reported: “Officials announced new rules aimed at controlling the way Chinese Internet users post messages on social networking sites that have posed challenges to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machinery. For many users, the most striking of the new rules requires people using the sites to register with their real names and biographical information They will still be able to post under aliases, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, December 16, 2011]

Some analysts say the real-name registration could dampen some of the freewheeling conversations that take place online, and that sometimes result in a large number of users criticizing officials and government policy. The rule on real-name registration had been expected for several months now by industry watchers, and Internet companies in China had already experimented in 2009 with some forms of this. It was the ninth of 17 new microblog regulations issued on Friday by Beijing government officials, who have been charged by central authorities with reining in the way microblogs are used.

The regulations also include a licensing requirement for companies that want to host microblogs and prohibitions on content, including posts aimed at “spreading rumors, disturbing social order or undermining social stability.” But officials have long put pressure on microblog companies to self-censor, and the lists of limits on content are more an articulation of the boundaries already in place.

The regulation announced by the Beijing officials applies only to companies based in the capital, where several of the largest microblog platforms, including Sina and Sohu, are located. One large rival, Tencent, is based in Shenzhen, a special economic zone in the south, and an editor there said Friday that the authorities had yet to issue any new regulations that would affect the company. But analysts expect that that city and others across China will soon put in place rules similar to the ones announced by Beijing.

“It’s just a further sign of the way things are going,” said Bill Bishop, an analyst and businessman based in Beijing who writes about the Internet industry on a blog, Digicha. Some Internet users, he added, may now ask themselves, “Why bother to say something? You never know.” “There were many comments of outrage on Friday from those posting on microblogs. “Society is going backwards,” wrote one user by the name of Cheng Yang. “Where is China’s path?”

Many prominent commentators and writers with influence over public opinion already post under their real names. For example, Pan Shiyi, a wealthy real estate developer who posts regularly, has more than seven million followers. He recently used his platform to advocate stricter air pollution reports from the Beijing government. “In fact, serious weibo users have already opted to use their real names out of their own interests,” said another editor at Tencent who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talking about government policy.

But Mr. Bishop said the technology was already in place and had been used by one large Internet company, Baidu, when it ran its own version of a microblog, which no longer exists. The registration information that users enter online can be matched up against a police database, he said.

The new real-name registration rules were first applied in Beijing in mid December 2011, then expanded to Guangzhou and Shenzhen. A few days later Shanghai city ordered Chinese tweeters to register their real names when opening accounts, the Xinhua news agency reported.

Real-Name Registration Program for Weibos Expands

In January 2012,Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: “China will expand nationwide a trial program that requires users of the country’s wildly popular microblog services to disclose their identities to the government in order to post comments online, the government’s top Internet regulator said. The official, Wang Chen, said at a news conference that registration trials in five major eastern Chinese cities would continue until wrinkles were worked out. But he said that eventually all 250 million users of microblogs, called weibos here, would have to register, beginning first with new users.[Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, January 18, 2012]

Mr. Wang indicated that under the program, users could continue to use nicknames online, even though they would still be required to register their true identities. Mr. Wang leads the State Council Information Office, which regulates the Internet and the government’s domestic public-relations machine. He also is a deputy director of the Communist Party’s propaganda department and, in particular, is in charge of China’s lavishly financed recent efforts to burnish its image worldwide. The government has said that it is studying real-name registration of microbloggers to limit the spread of malicious rumors, pornography, scams and other unhealthy practices on microblogs, which have become a major source of news for many Chinese.

Free-speech advocates generally condemn the move, saying that the microblogs’ freewheeling debate and frequent criticism of official misconduct will be neutered if the government knows the identity of everyone who posts a comment. Real-name use also would allow security officers to target microblog users who consistently post comments about sensitive issues, even if their individual remarks do not attract large numbers of readers. Mr. Wang said that the government broadly supports citizens’ use of microblogs, noting that an average day sees 150 million new comments posted online. “Weibos can indeed reflect people’s opinion and spread positive voices and enrich information services,” he said. “But they have also made it easy for some irrational voices and negative opinions and harmful information to spread quickly.”

Real-name registration will have a chilling effect on some kinds of online comment, Hu Yong, an associate professor at Peking University’s school of journalism and communications, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. But it remains to be seen how many users would be dissuaded from speaking out on controversial issues, Mr. Hu added. “Certainly some people will not dare to speak out about certain issues,” he said. “But a lot of people already are using their real names, even in discussing current affairs. And the user base of weibos is so huge that if something happens to highly concern their own interests, I think you’ll still hear a loud uproar.”

At the same same news conference, Mr. Wang also suggested that the government and the Communist Party would continue to expand and improve domestic and global public-relations machines, starting with training for news spokespersons who are increasingly deployed in government offices. Some press officers are “putting the government on the back foot in dealing with emergency events,” he said, because they have not yet learned how to respond quickly and accurately to requests for information. He said public-relations officials would be trained in “political thought” and “the spirit of speaking truth,” adding: “speaking honestly is the most valuable quality of news spokespersons. Skills are necessary, but that comes second.” On the foreign front, Mr. Wang said, “We will spread the voice of China to the world with an even more open attitude and more efficient methods.” The goal, he said, is to educate foreigners to China’s domestic and foreign policies, values and culture “so that we can show off a national image of being civilized, democratic, open and progressive.”

Real-Name Registration Program for Weibos Goes Into Effect in Beijing

On March 16, 2012, Reuters reported: “As of Friday, Beijing-based microbloggers were required to register on the Weibo platform using their real identities or face unspecified legal consequences, in a bid to curb what Communist officials call rumours, vulgarities and pornography. Many users, however, say the restrictions are clearly aimed at muzzling the often scathing, raucous - and perhaps most significantly, anonymous - online chatter in a country where the Internet offers a rare opportunity for open discussion. "Definitely, I will not use Weibo if they need real names," said Wang, a 27-year-old government employee who said he loved being able to post his thoughts anonymously. "I don't want to be supervised because of my words." [Source: Sui-Lee Wee, Reuters, March 16, 2012]

Despite Premier Wen Jiabao's calls for greater political reforms, the ruling Communist Party has shown little sign of loosening its grip on power, or allowing public dissent. Wen told his last news conference at China's annual parliamentary session that letting off steam via the Internet was "normal". But as no other public forum offers people the same freedom of debate that microblogs do, operators deploy a host of measures to monitor content, blocking and removing comment deemed unacceptable, especially posts with a political slant. Even with all the censorship, Weibo users are able to access vast amounts of information that they would never have been able to some three years ago, as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and other similar services are blocked.

It is unclear how strictly the authorities will enforce the identification rules, which may also be introduced in other major cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. By midday on Friday, only 19 million out of more than 300 million users of Sina had registered their identities, and several microbloggers told Reuters they would not sign up. "I'm sure I will not use it any longer," said Sheng Hui, a 28-year-old employee at a foreign bank. "Weibo, for me, is just a tool to blow off my anger and pressure. I won't be able to shout abuse in future."

Part of the appeal of microblogs stems from the failure of the state-run media, said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University and a regular microblogger, who, like Premier Wen, understands the platforms' "safety valve" value. "China's official media has done a very poor job of reporting criticisms of the government and exposing society's weaknesses, so a country like ours needs to rely on the informal media," He said. "Once the people can express their opinions online, they don't have to take to the streets."

Zhang Ming, a politics professor at Beijing's Renmin University and a frequent microblogger, said the new rules were aimed to "limit microbloggers' ability to expose malpractice by the local governments and bring whistleblowers immediately under control".

Police Microblogging Construction

In September 2011, Peter Mattis wrote in China Brief, “the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) announced the national launch of "police microblogging construction" (gong’an weibo jianshe) as the newest element in its social management toolkit and public security informationization. To prepare the national launch of police microblogging, the MPS convened a special seminar to help establish the “normalization” of police microblogging with informed research and lessons from a trial period for the MPS program that took place over 18 months at sub-national levels. [Source: Peter Mattis, China Brief 11, 18, September 30, 2011]

Part transparency, part opinion shaping and part two-way information service, police microblogging aims to achieve a number of objectives. The primary objective is related to improving the relationship between the people and MPS elements at every level. As one article earlier this year put it, police microblogging deals with the people’s right to know what its government is doing. The flip-side of this government transparency concerning social stability is the government’s right to guide public discussion by countering what it deems rumors and unhelpful conjectures. As state media argued on the day of the launch, the microblogging environment often contains emotional if not irrational information that requires MPS guidance. Microblogging also offers a way to release useful public safety information and respond directly and openly to public inquiries.

Police microblogging construction provides yet another example of Beijing leveraging local-level government innovation as a generator and testing ground for new governance ideas. The MPS credited the Foshan Municipal Public Security Bureau in Guangdong Province with taking the first steps in using Chinese microblogging platforms as a way to communicate with the local citizenry. The MPS also highlighted other public security departments and bureaus highlighted for their innovative experiments in using microblogs to disseminate public safety information and move toward service-oriented public security work, including Beijing, Xiamen, Jinan, Kunming, and Hebei.

In early 2011 a broader discussion appeared to take place about the direction and value of police microblogging. The China Police Daily carried an online poll in January to investigate reactions to the program and other press outlets discussed the merits of the local programs. Most notably, local-level public security offices reported improved public perceptions of the police for those units using microblogs relative to MPS units that did not. The initial microblogging experiments were used to tout MPS achievements, but led to the embarrassing results of “zero forwards, zero comments” on police microblog posts. This failure shifted police microblogging toward the more practical efforts to solicit tips, provide warnings and describe preventative measures for public safety.

While some observers have hailed microblogging as the latest political “game changer” in China, there can be no question that the changing ways in which Chinese citizens use information has affected government information policy. The People’s Daily highlighted a need to change the prevalent attitude that the public security personnel can avoid engaging the public without social stability-related consequences. At this weeks’ seminar, Vice Minister Huang pointed out that the times called for the MPS to respond to the citizenry's new expectations as the Internet has created a new conceptual landscape for maintaining stability.

Woman Sent to Labor Camp for Microblog Message

In November 2010, Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “A Chinese woman was sentenced to one year in a labor camp on Wednesday after she forwarded a satirical microblog message that urged recipients to attack the Japanese Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, human rights groups said. The woman, Cheng Jianping, 46, was accused of “disturbing social order” for resending a Twitter message from her fiancé that mocked young nationalists who held anti-Japanese rallies in several cities last month. The original message sarcastically goaded protesters to go beyond the smashing of Japanese products and express their fury at the heavily policed expo site. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Timesm November 18, 2010]

Ms. Cheng added the words: “Charge, angry youth.” Ms. Cheng was seized in October 2011 in the southeastern city of Wuxi on the same day as her fiancé, Hua Chunhui. Mr. Hua, who was released five days later, told reporters the two had planned to marry on the day of their detention.

Under China’s legal system, the police can send people to so-called re-education through labor for up to four years without trial. The system, thought to accommodate as many as 300,000 detainees, has been criticized by legal reformers who say it is easily abused. Such labor centers are largely populated by pickpockets, drug users and prostitutes, but are also used as a punishment for those guilty of political offenses. Once sentenced, people have little chance of appeal.

Widely known by the online name Wang Yi, Ms. Cheng is avidly followed by a small coterie of Chinese intellectuals who subscribe to Twitter, which is blocked in China but can be reached by those willing to burrow beneath the government’s firewall. Most recently Ms. Cheng sent out messages praising the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Last August, she was briefly detained after expressing sympathy for a detained democracy advocate, Liu Xianbin.

“Sentencing someone to a year in a labor camp, without trial, for simply repeating another person’s clearly satirical observation on Twitter demonstrates the level of China’s repression of online expression,” Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s director for the Asia-Pacific region, said in a statement on Thursday.

Rights advocates said Ms. Cheng’s sentence highlights the government’s anxiety over social networking services like Twitter and Facebook, which is also blocked here. Renee Xia, the international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said Ms. Cheng was part of a group of daring freelance advocates known as weiguan who travel across the country to show up at courthouses where dissidents are on trial.

Sometimes, when a friend has disappeared into police custody, the weiguan will post to Twitter personal details about the officials involved in the detention. In rare cases, the resulting deluge of phone calls has led to the speedy release of a detainee. “There is a growing group of people like her, netizens who are moving from cyberspace to the real world,” Ms. Xia said. “Putting her into a labor camp shows that the government is prepared to come down hard on these people.”

Ms. Cheng has been sent to the Shibali River women’s labor camp in Henan Province. Mr. Hua told the BBC on Thursday that Ms. Cheng, who has high blood pressure, had started a hunger strike in a bid to serve her sentence closer to home.

Microbloggers Avoid Censors in China

Strong comments still makes it online and for many of the new microblogging sites, the banks of censors are simply a requirement in China of doing business in a new industry. Though censors, many employed by the companies themselves, erase offending messages from the web as rapidly as they can, weibos stay online for hours or days before they are caught. Xiao Qiang, media scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, told AFP, "This mechanism of forming public opinion is new and effectively contesting the traditional method of control and censorship of the party." [Source: AFP, September 8, 2011, Peter Shadbolt, CNN, February 20 2011]

"Compared with two years ago, I would say the government is much more relaxed now," Gang Lu, a Chinese internet entrepreneur who moderated at the Social Media Week Hong Kong event, told CNN. "There is a lot more negative comment on microblogging sites than there used to be." [Source: Peter Shadbolt, CNN, February 20 2011]

"From the operators' point of view, censorship and restrictions are a fact of life. The government has already closed down some Twitter clones," said Lu. "Almost half the team at Sina Weibo are engaged in monitoring content at some level. Even so, Sina is very bold but they are under pressure as well — they still have to be responsive to the government."

How Microbloggers Vault the 'Great Firewall of China'

How do microbloggers vault the 'Great Firewall of China.' Peter Shadbolt of CNN reported: Type the words "Egypt," "Tiananmen" or "June 4th, 1989" into any of China's microblogging sites and the search will return this message: "According to relevant law and regulations, the results are not displayed." But type in "8x8" — shorthand for 64, in turn shorthand for 6/4 or June 4th; the date of the Tiananmen crackdown — and you may catch some lively and surprisingly open exchanges on the social networking sites. [Source: Peter Shadbolt, CNN, February 20 2011]

References to "the Pharaoh nation" instead of Egypt, misspelling democracy as "democrasy" or "democrazy" or even scanning written comment and posting it as an image are just some of the ways microbloggers cheat the bots that seize on keywords and bring them to the attention of censors employed at social networking sites such as Renren and Sina Weibo.

Others use a mixture of street slang or dip in and out of one or more of China's 45 regional dialects to disguise comment. Others still are either past caring whether their comments are detected or like to test their nerves and those of the censors.

"We could have done it [overthrown the government] 22 years ago, but in the end we failed," laments one microblogger from Guangzhou on Sina Weibo, comparing Egypt with the Tiananmen protests of 1989. "Now we can only dryly witness another's happiness and project our dreams on it, imagining it." Later the microblogger retweets. "Even though he [former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak] was forced to resign, he still deserves some respect. Here [China], nothing ends without the use of force or bloodshed." Microblogging has exploded in China, presenting a serious pressure point to a government that has built an industry around restricting comment.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012


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